July 07, 2011

The second Suez crisis.

(Or, a welcome slap in the face)

The saga of the MV Suez has ended with a slap in the face of Indian civil society in general and the Indian Government in particular. What should have been an opportunity for India to display robust and emphatic action to support its hostage mariners degenerated instead into a game of brinkmanship with the Pakistanis on the high seas in which Indians have come off second best. 

The entire country has- rightly- heard the Indian sailors of the Suez thanking the Pakistanis publicly after their release from captivity. Unfortunately, the fact that they and their families spoke plainly when they said that the Indian authorities - in contrast- did not do anything to secure the release of the Suez is a public relations disaster for the UPA government. It is interesting that- even after the event- the Indian authorities seemed more concerned about blaming the Pakistani navy for the damage to the Indian Navy's 'Godavari' than the plight of the hostages aboard the Suez; they exhibited, amply, where their warped priorities actually lay.

I agree with those media reports that say that the Indian government blew it on all fronts- and in style. But another truth remains unsaid: that the successful efforts to secure the release of the Suez- with more Indians than Pakistanis among its crew, by the way- were, in the end, to the credit of Pakistani activist Ansar Burney. In contrast, Indian civil society, like its government, was found wanting once again when the chips were down.

It may be argued that negotiations for hostage release are complicated (made more so by our industry, many of whose components want these made complex to mint millions off the business of piracy and ransoms). Public perception, however, does not see this. All it sees is a country that does not care about its sailors. The consequences for the industry- especially its recruitment arm- will be slowly near catastrophic. Quotes by released hostages, as from the Suez, saying in interviews that they will not sail again after their ordeal will be the final nail in the coffin of the public's perception of the profession as a career of choice.

I agree with this public perception, for it is the truth. And you know what else? I welcome the Suez media coverage even if it makes more people shy away from the profession. I think- unlike many of my contemporaries- that the truth must be widely acknowledged for us to progress, because this industry is capable of taking action only when it is forced to. Sweeping the crap under the carpet is not working anymore anyway, thankfully, so I expect that more in the maritime world will be forced to recognise the truth publicly. Some may even do something about it; this can only be good for shipping in the long term. In a way, the slap on the face post the Suez crisis may turn out to do some good after all; a welcome slap, I think, if it succeeds in shaking people out of hubris and lethargy.

I have to say that I am less sanguine about changes in the stance of either the Indian government or its society. It is easy to ignore sailors and the profession of seafaring. We are not sizeable enough to count at election time for politicians to be bothered about us- and, in any case, we are scattered across the country and the world. As for the public, it will probably continue to react in the same way as it forever has: showing distaste for shipping, shunning the profession and simultaneously exhibiting absolute ignorance of how dependent the country is on the movement of goods by sea.

Governments across the world, together with the industry, need to hammer home to their constituents the indispensability of shipping, without which the costs of most goods they consume-especially, in the Indian context, oil- would skyrocket. But the initiative to manage the shocks and aftershocks of piracy- including public perceptions based on grim realities- need to go much further. These initiatives must be well thought out, by both governments and the industry. This management will be different in labour supplying countries like India that want to increase their seafarer market share considerably when compared to the Western world, but the present state of affairs cannot be allowed to go on. Although far from the only reason, piracy is contributing heavily to the blackballing of the profession in India. Besides, Indian shipping- particularly State owned SCI- is on an expansion spree. Where will they get the people to run their ships?

Of course, we could manage the piracy fallout best by actually solving the problem of piracy, but that is another story for another time. At the moment, we are jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof. We continue to cede the initiative to Somali pirates, and, until we stop doing so, all we can do is fight a losing battle against massive negative publicity. All we can do, when we get egg on our faces after a Suez-like crisis, is to try like hell to spin an omelette.


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